THE NEW ROPE STRING BAND: HISTORY
Once seen, never forgotten: combining superb musicianship with side-splitting comic genius, the New Rope String Band are truly unique entertainers. Elements of circus, clowning, vaudeville, slapstick and sheer inspired silliness are spliced with beautiful acoustic music from various world traditions, in precision-honed yet uproarious performances that have delighted audiences from Borneo's Sarawak rainforest to the Shetland Folk Festival. Equally at home in tiny village halls or on major festival stages, these madcap minstrels are now touring again as a three-piece, mixing up longtime favourite routines with ever-evolving new material, meanwhile peddling a brand new album of tunes, Myoosic.
The group's original incarnation, the Old Rope String Band, first formed back in 1988, when ceilidh-band colleagues Joe Scurfield, Ian Carr and today's sole remaining co-founder, Pete Challoner, realised they were winning louder applause - and having more fun - with their quirkily off-the-cuff skits between sets than they were from playing the actual dances. Duly metamorphosing into a musical comedy combo, they launched themselves as hosts of the monthly Old Rope String Band Club in their home town of Newcastle, performing a completely different set each time, ahead of various leading folk acts. Word soon spread, audiences swiftly swelled to capacity, and after six months they took the show on the road, tapping into those folk-scene connections to carry the Old Rope gospel far and wide.
When Ian moved on a couple of years later, Joe happened across expat Scotsman Tim Dalling - a pianist-turned-accordionist and Glasgow School of Art alumnus, via the Cornwall alterative theatre scene - busking in Newcastle town centre. The addition of a piano accordion to a string band, alongside Joe's fiddle and Pete's fiddle/banjo juggling (sometimes literal), proved entirely in keeping with the Old Ropes' philosophy, as did Tim's contribution to their singular comic chemistry. This was the line-up that continued "immaturing" over the next decade and beyond, securing their status as one of the best-loved acts on the UK touring circuit.
Following Joe's tragic death in 2005, Pete and Tim, together with his other nearest and dearest, agreed that his memory was best honoured by keeping the laughter alive. They recruited two close friends, fiddler/singer Jock Tyldesley (of Flatville Aces and Chipolata 5 renown) and Dutch guitarist/fiddler Vera van Heeringen, and thus the New Rope String Band was born. It was time to evolve and adapt again: abetted by an Arts Council grant, they invited directorial input from some kindred creative spirits - John Lee (Kneehigh Theatre Company), John Nicholson (Peepolykus), Sam Thomas (Chipolatas) and stand-up Keith Donnelly - who brought fresh perspectives on characterisation and stagecraft, while the new quartet bedded in, prodded at each other's funny-bones, redeveloped some existing material and dreamed up an array of new classics.
While it's always the euphorically helpless laughter that people remember first about a New Ropes show, music remains at the heart of their magic, as it's been from the very beginning. Each show is colourfully but seamlessly woven through with swatches of Celtic, bluegrass, cajun, old-timey, boogie-woogie, Dixieland, Scandinavian and classical material, while elsewhere the inspiration is more lateral, if not downright skewed. Instruments are turned to use as tennis racquets, batting a musical note around the stage; a solemn Scottish pipe march is played by whacking different lengths of plastic tubing off each other. Other ingredients in the mix, meanwhile, have been known to include ladders, contortionism, seagull impressions, barbershop harmonies, mime, Morris dancing, Tim getting dunked in a fish-tank, a smattering of explosives and most recently interactive film, an element they plan to develop further during 2010. With Vera having bowed out on maternity leave, and the new album released in September 2010, the merry band is back to three, and the latest leap in its ongoing creative evolution (or should that be mutation?) is now excitingly under way.
"They made me laugh until I cried, and played some great music. If the Queen could knight them or something, it would be a good idea."
"Value for money in every way possible."
(Rachel Roberts, Nottinghamshire Artservice)
"They were a revelation!
I didn't expect them to be quite as incredible as they were.
I couldn't believe what they were doing most of the time. It defied belief, it was really great!"
(Bob Gibbon, Director, Orkney Folk Festival)